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Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011: She Was an Actress and an Activist

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1969 in Monaco
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1969 in Monaco

BARBARA KLEIN: I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the film star Elizabeth Taylor. She made over sixty films during her long career in Hollywood. She was famous for her striking beauty, violet eyes and shining black hair. Taylor was equally known for her complex private life and eight marriages. Beginning in the nineteen eighties, she also raised millions of dollars to support AIDS research.

CLEOPATRA: “Without you, Antony, this is not a world I want to live in, much less conquer. Because for me, there would be no love anywhere. Do you want me to die with you? I will. Or do you want me to live with you? Whatever you choose.”

BARBARA KLEIN: That was Elizabeth Taylor playing the queen of Egypt in the nineteen sixty-three movie “Cleopatra.” She earned over one million dollars for her work in this movie. At the time, this was the most money ever paid to an actor for a single film. It was also one of the most costly movies ever made. “Cleopatra” was a larger-than-life movie for a larger-than-life actress.

Elizabeth Taylor in 1946
Elizabeth Taylor in 1946

STEVE EMBER: Elizabeth Rosemund Taylor was born in nineteen thirty-two to American parents living in London. Her father Francis was an art dealer. Her mother Sara had worked as a stage actress before her marriage. The Taylors left England in nineteen thirty-nine and moved to southern California. Elizabeth’s beauty soon caught the attention of movie studio officials.

She made her first movie, “There’s One Born Every Minute,” at the age of ten. This was followed a year later by “Lassie Come Home.” But it was the nineteen forty-four film, “National Velvet” that made her a star.

Twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor starred as Velvet Brown, a girl living in a village in England. She saves a horse and trains him for an important race, which she wins.

BARBARA KLEIN: During the nineteen forties Elizabeth Taylor played many roles in movies about families. Not all child actors in Hollywood were successful later playing adult roles. But Taylor easily went from playing children to playing teenagers and adults. In nineteen fifty, she played the bride in the popular film “Father of the Bride.”

That was also the year of her first marriage, to the wealthy businessman Conrad “Nicky” Hilton. But their marriage ended in divorce the next year. Speaking after her first divorce, Taylor reportedly said that she had been able to fit in the clothing of a sexy woman since she was fourteen years old. She said her troubles started because she had a woman’s body and a child’s emotions.

Elizabeth Taylor with her husband Mike Todd in 1957
Elizabeth Taylor with her husband Mike Todd in 1957

STEVE EMBER: Elizabeth Taylor would quickly become as famous for her private life as she was for her acting career. The media often wrote about her many marriages and love affairs. In nineteen fifty-two she married the British actor Michael Wilding, with whom she had two sons.

Five years later they divorced, and she married the film producer Mike Todd. The couple had one daughter, Liza. Mike Todd died in nineteen fifty-eight in a plane crash. One of his close friends was the singer Eddie Fisher. He was married to a good friend of Elizabeth Taylor, the popular actress Debbie Reynolds. Eddie Fisher left his wife in order to marry Elizabeth Taylor. Many people were shocked and angered by this behavior.


BARBARA KLEIN: Elizabeth Taylor once said that during the first part of her career, she did not make a huge effort as an actress. She said this changed in nineteen fifty-one with the movie “A Place in the Sun.” It tells a tragic story about a young man and his relationship with two women. Here is a famous scene with her co-star, Montgomery Clift.

GEORGE: “I am the happiest person in the world.”

ANGELA: “The second happiest.”

GEORGE: “Oh, Angela, if I could only tell you how much I love you, if I could only tell you all.”

ANGELA: “Tell Mama, tell Mama all.”

STEVE EMBER: Critics praised Elizabeth Taylor for the depth she brought to this movie. She expressed both innocence and intense sensuality. She began to receive wide praise for her fine and expressive acting. And, she began to receive richer, more interesting roles.

One of these was in the movie “Giant” with Rock Hudson and James Dean. It tells the story of a wealthy cattle rancher in Texas and his family.

JETT: “I guess you’re about the best looking gal we’ve seen around here in a long time, I think. Prettiest I think I’ve seen down here.”

LESLIE: “Why thank you, Jett. That’s a very nice compliment. And I’m going to tell my husband I’ve met with your approval.”

BARBARA KLEIN: The movie was a big success. James Dean did not live to see the movie completed. He died in a car accident in nineteen fifty-five before the movie was released the next year. Elizabeth Taylor received Academy Award nominations for several films she made starting in the late nineteen fifties. The first was for the nineteen fifty-seven movie “Raintree County.”

The next year she starred in a film version of the Tennessee Williams play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” She plays a beautiful wife who is having marriage troubles. Her alcoholic husband is played by Paul Newman. Many critics consider this one of her best movies.

MAGGIE: “Oh Brick! How long does this have to go on, this punishment? Haven’t I served my term? Can’t I apply for a pardon?”

BRICK: “Lately, that finishing school voice of yours sounds like you was running upstairs to tell someone the house is on fire.”

MAGGIE: “Is it any wonder? You know what I feel like? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.”

BRICK: “Then jump off the roof, Maggie, jump off it. Now cats jump off roofs and they land uninjured. Do it. Jump.”

MAGGIE: “Jump where! Into what?”

Elizabeth Taylor holds the Academy Award she won for her role in "Butterfield 8"
Elizabeth Taylor holds the Academy Award she won for her role in "Butterfield 8"

STEVE EMBER: Taylor’s third Academy Award nomination was for another movie based on a Tennessee Williams play called “Suddenly Last Summer.”

In nineteen sixty, it was her turn to win. She received her first Academy Award for her work in “Butterfield 8”. Her second Academy Award for acting came six years later for her role in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She starred in this movie opposite her husband at the time, the Welsh actor Richard Burton.

MARTHA: “In fact, he was sort of a flop. A great big, fat flop.”

GEORGE: “Stop it, Martha.”

MARTHA: “I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can’t afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary. Not on an associate professor’s salary.”

BARBARA KLEIN: The movie was based on a play by Edward Albee. For this role, Elizabeth Taylor gained a great deal of weight in order to look the part of the aging wife of a college professor. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” received great praise. But it was Taylor’s first movie with Burton that had made history.

“Cleopatra” received a great deal of attention for bringing together Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Both stars were married to other people at the time. But they began a widely publicized love affair while filming the movie. Burton and Taylor would eventually marry and divorce each other twice. They made many movies together and led a life of extreme fame and wealth.

Elizabeth Taylor as "Cleopatra"
Elizabeth Taylor as "Cleopatra"

STEVE EMBER: Taylor later said she remained madly in love with Burton for his entire life. She said she would have married him a third time had he not died unexpectedly in nineteen eighty-four.

Elizabeth Taylor’s last two marriages also ended in divorce. She was married to Senator John Warner of Virginia and, later, to a builder named Larry Fortensky.

BARBARA KLEIN: Throughout her life, Elizabeth Taylor faced many health problems. She nearly died twice of pneumonia. She had back, hip, heart and weight problems. In the nineteen eighties, she battled drug and alcohol abuse. She entered a medical center for treatment and was very open with the public about her struggles.

She spent much of her time working on her charity and business projects. She gave her name to several hugely successful perfumes.

STEVE EMBER: In nineteen eighty-five, she helped create amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. She did this during a period when many people believed those infected with the disease were immoral and few recognized its danger. Reports say she helped raise over a hundred million dollars for AIDS research and patients. In nineteen ninety-one she started the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. The organization helps people around the world who are living with AIDS.

BARBARA KLEIN: Elizabeth Taylor died of heart failure in two thousand eleven at the age of seventy-nine. AIDS researcher Mathilde Krim told USA Today that the actress was always known for her beauty, success and jewelry. But she said Elizabeth Taylor was also a woman of extreme intelligence, independence, courage and a deep concern for others.

STEVE EMBER: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at And you can find us on Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.